Tammy’s Always Dying (Amy Jo Johnson, Canada) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Adam Nayman

Tammy’s also always yelling—and cursing, and drinking, and threatening suicide, and making a messy spectacle of herself in public and private. That’s just who Tammy is, and it’s also just the sort of movie that Tammy’s Always Dying is trying to be: a smile-through-tears comedy-drama about the need to hold our loved ones close even as they push us away. Thankfully, Amy Jo Johnson’s sophomore feature isn’t as bad as all that. It helps matters greatly that Tammy—who will also add a terminal cancer diagnosis to her resume over the course of the story—is played by Felicity Huffman, an actress who knows the difference between her character’s self-melodramatizating streak and her own vocation, and who matches up very believably with Anastasia Phillips as her put-upon adult daughter Kathy, whose resigned rage at living out her days as helpmate has left her with a literal death wish for Mom. There’s also some typically excellent support from Clark Johnson (as Tammy’s oldest friend, who’s even more inured than Kathy to her bullshit), whose presence lifts any low-budget Canadian feature and who keeps his scenes nicely off-speed. There are all kinds of ways to display directorial chops, and even if Tammy’s Always Dying isn’t much to look at, Johnson manages her cast well—perhaps not enough to fully offset the phoniness of a subplot involving Kathy’s attempt to peddle her life story as poverty porn on an anachronistically late ’90s-style talk show (the snippets of which all but feature a blinking neon subtitle reading “cultural satire”), but certainly to the point where individual scenes and exchanges feel convincing.

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